It is a sad fact that the reputation and fame of many composers, built up over a lifetime, evaporates on their death bed. Si mes vers avaient des ailes, a short song written when the composer was just thirteen, is the work on which Hahn’s posthumous fame had, until relatively recently, relied, and is included here in the composer's own transcription for cello and piano. Recording catalogues now reveal an ever-growing list of works—concertos, symphonic offerings, songs, piano pieces and chamber music—by this most urbane and charming composer.The C major Violin Sonata of 1926 assuredly leads us into the world of Fauré fifty years earlier, its easy lyricism and textural transparency bearing a kinship with the elder French musician’s A major Sonata. This melodic suppleness is continued in Soliloque et Forlane, now with viola and piano demonstrating Hahn’s skill in turning out a jaunty tune. The Nocturne and the Romance, both for violin and piano, reveal further an ability to combine passionate intensity with a sense of refined melodic and harmonic delicacy. The Piano Quartet of 1946 adopts a more muscular and impassioned character. Melodic charm and restfulness in the Andante are interrupted by the central passage which sails into troubled and expressive waters and the finale rolls gracefully to its compelling conclusion.
This charming recording is the perfect showcase for Room-Music, a consortium of internationally acclaimed musicians who wish to perform and explore chamber music in a more flexible and innovative form.
Reynaldo Hahn was born on 9 August 1874 in Caracas, Venezuela, the youngest of twelve children. His first language was Spanish. By the age of three, however, his family had moved to Paris and the precocious six-year old was invited to sing operetta numbers at the salon of the Princess Mathilde (cousin of Napoleon III), accompanying himself at the piano. It was this unusual facility for which he became celebrated as an adult and which the writer Francis Pott suggests ‘undoubtedly contributed to a benign underestimation of his talents: the image of the singer seated at the keyboard was redolent of a dilettantism all too likely to engender preconceptions beyond the sphere of the songs for which he was celebrated, and it is perhaps accordingly that his more formal concert output has suffered.’
Hahn entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven, studying solfège, harmony and counterpoint, composition and piano. Hahn had already shown unusual compositional facility by the age of seventeen, when his teacher Massenet (whose suave and fluent lyricism often seems to mark Hahn’s own style) introduced him to the publishers Heugel, who over the course of his career were to issue many of Hahn’s song collections. Despite considerable success with his song writing, it was Hahn’s attraction to the stage, to opera and more specifically operetta (with its greater popular appeal), for which he became best known.
Hahn was a connoisseur of literature and in 1894 met Marcel Proust. The famous novelist was to draw upon Hahn’s character for his portrait of the musician Santeuil. The romantic relationship which developed between them over many years remained strong until Proust’s death in 1922. Hahn wrote extensively as a music critic but the literary friendship with Proust may well have been the catalyst for his many extant eloquent reminiscences of artistic and social celebrities.
Hahn became noted as a conductor and as a particularly sensitive interpreter of Mozart (the subject of one of his lighter stage works), with whose music he felt a strong affinity. His musical tastes ranged from Palestrina through Haydn (whose music he found ‘exquisite, powdered and occasionally provocative’) to Ravel, but strangely excluded Debussy, whose music he derided. He was fond of Wagner but little of his own music reflects the influence. Beethoven he said ‘transports us by the mere vibration of his soul’. He reserved some of his most purple prose for Schumann: ‘There is no emotion that he has not experienced: all the phenomena of nature are familiar to him—moonlight bright or hazy, sunrise and sunset, confused shadows, dull weather, radiant weather, fresh scents, the majesty of evening, swirling mists, powdery snow—he has known them all and can impart to us the thousand-and-one emotions associated with them. His Lieder encompass … the entire depth of expression and sincerity of emotion with respect for the [poem’s] meaning and delicacy of touch. What a prodigious feeling for literature he had! For me, obsessed as I am with the fusion of literature and music, that is the quality that counts first and foremost.’
Endowed with easy linguistic ability through his parentage and childhood migration to Europe, Hahn was widely travelled. In 1940, on account of his part-Jewish ancestry, he fled Paris for Cannes but returned in 1945 to take up musical direction of L’Opéra. Despite plainly missing the intellectual fulfilment of his romance with Proust half a century earlier, he remained a flamboyant personality right up to his short and final illness, and he died in January 1947.
Much of Hahn’s music delights in an uncomplicated and radiant freshness, is compellingly direct and devoid of pretentious aspiration. The overriding style is comfortably eclectic, sometimes unashamedly retrospective. This music has a lucid fluidity, a charm and economy of rhetorical gesture which recalls the facility of Mendelssohn or Fauré.
The sound world of the C major Violin Sonata of 1926 assuredly visits the Fauré of fifty years earlier, the opening movement’s easy lyricism and textural transparency bearing a kinship with the elder French musician’s A major Sonata of 1877. Structurally set in a traditional sonata form, both of the themes of the opening movement (Sans lenteur, tendrement) are imbued with Gallic restraint and supple expressivity. The second movement, Véloce (in ternary form with a harp-like central portion), skits across its scherzo terrain with lucidity and no little verve, and an unusual concluding Modéré movement (marked très à l’aise, au gré de l’interprète) is for the most part gentle, melancholic and nostalgic. Such sorrowfulness is broken only by the urgency of a central (interrupted) climax and then (following a wonderfully hypnotic moment of harmonic ‘questioning’) by a foreshortened reprise of the sonata’s opening as the dark clouds of nostalgic longing are dispersed.
The supple melodic cantilena of the sonata is also found in the three shorter works. The serene Andante of Soliloque et Forlane (1937) precedes a ‘soufflé’ Allegro scherzando where Hahn reveals his true colours in a jaunty second subject. The Nocturne (1906) and Romance (1901) both reveal a refined melodic and harmonic delicacy disturbed by central moments of passionate intensity and leavened by returns to calmer waters of lyrical elegance and grace. The short transcription of Hahn’s youthful setting (1888) of Victor Hugo’s poem Si mes vers avaient des ailes (‘If my verses had wings’; the original song, dedicated to Hahn’s sister Maria, is recorded on) casts a backward glance towards the music of compatriot Léon Boëllmann (1862–1897) in its arpeggiated piano figures, its arch-shaped melodic lines and clear harmonic restraint. Hugo’s original text reflects the Romantic aspiration of the heart.
In the Piano Quartet (1946), the opening Allegretto moderato, after the easy and graceful opening subject, adopts a more muscular and impassioned character. Melodic charm and restfulness in the Andante are interrupted by the central passage which sails into troubled and expressive waters and the finale (Allegro assai) rolls gracefully to its compelling conclusion.
Jeremy Filsell © 2004